Our Montreal Canadiens 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the most unpredictable teams of the last decade. Their point totals have been jumping around seemingly randomly season-by-season. Their last three years, for example, have been, in order, 103, 71, and 96 points. For anyone trying to gauge where this team will finish next season, we have our work cut out for us.
A lot of the success of the team hinges on the type of year that Carey Price has in net. Is he healthy? Is he on his game? Those are the two biggest questions surrounding the team as we enter the 2019-20 NHL season.
The Canadiens are in tough in their division, as they will be up against three of the best teams in the league in Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto. Each of these teams has an elite calibre offense, formidable (if not great) defense, and a star goalie. Unfortunately, Montreal does not have the roster on paper to fully compete, and therefore, must utilize what they have to succeed. Much of this involves rallying around and supporting Carey Price whenever possible to allow for the quick, energetic forecheck the Habs do possess to capitalize on counter attack scoring chances.
One of the biggest needs for the Habs in recent years has been a legitimate number one centre. Or any depth at centre, really. Last season, Phillip Danault was the leading centre on the team’s roster, averaged the highest ice time as a centre for the team and recording 53 points on the year. Although him and his line (Tatar-Danault-Gallagher) were the team’s most trusted option in all situations, none of the players are the elite level, bonafide number one line calibre that the most successful teams have. They would thrive in a slightly reduced, specialized role.
This particular need for high-end, elite offensive players is finally being addressed in the last two drafts, as the team now has in their system at least three prospects (just at centre) who have shown the potential to fill this void. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the most likely candidate as future number one centre, as he had a respectably successful rookie season and impressed many with his play on both sides of the puck. Also possible future options are Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling (who you may remember scored a hat trick and the shootout winner in his NHL debut at the end of last season).
Having these kinds of options on the team will be huge for the overall offensive production of the team in an NHL that is quickly moving towards speed, youth, and dynamic play. It will be especially important to help the Habs compete in a highly offensive Atlantic Division. And don’t forget, that is just at centre. They also have potential elite sniper Cole Caufield leading a selection of wingers rearing up to provide a boost to the team’s goal totals.
Although he has taken a lot of flak over the years for poor drafting and development, trades, decisions, and inability to identify and fill the most important needs on his roster when he had the best goalie in the world on his team, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has had a couple of good seasons. He has finally been picking up pieces and draft picks to retool the roster for success.
Patience has been the key lately as the better way to rebuild a roster is through the draft and development of younger players. With 21 draft choices over the last two years (an additional seven over that time) and ten of those being in the first three rounds, Montreal now has a stacked prospect pool that the team will be able to draw from very soon.
Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jesse Ylonen, Alexander Romanov, Jacob Olofsson, Ryan Poehling, and Cayden Primeau are all recent draft choices that are almost certainly going to be NHL players. The goal will be to make sure the later round picks can find some success as well, as the long-term depth of the roster is still a question mark for the Habs and the best way to acquire reliable depth is through the draft.
As previously discussed, the Canadiens have been in need of a number one centre for a long time. Last season, the role was filled by a 1A/1B combination of Phillip Danault and Max Domi, as both averaged about 17 minutes of ice time per game. But, look for Jesperi Kotkaniemi to make a jump this season and begin to assume that role for himself. The nice thing about this development is that Max Domi could slide back to the left wing as Kotkaniemi moves up the roster, especially with the type of prospects the Habs have coming up to the NHL soon. Or, due to the playstyle with which Domi succeeds (with the puck on his stick to find teammates), maybe he stays as centre for now with Kotkaniemi on his wing.
Jesperi may see slightly sheltered minutes in terms of defensive matchups, with the tougher ones going to Danault’s line, but Kotkaniemi has already shown the type of play that a number one centre needs to bring. And that is not to say that Kotkaniemi is not able to handle defensive play, as he showed promise in the role last season. It is more of a trend based off of his last season, where he had 62% offensive zone starts, which is normal for a younger, still developing player. Kotkaniemi’s vision, size, and puck control skills are great assets for him as he begins to settle in to the NHL. These qualities would also pair quite nicely with Max Domi’s speed and playmaking ability, provided one or both are able to be effective without the puck on their stick.
This leaves Phillip Danault slotted in firmly as the second line centre, a role he should fill fantastically. His new career high of 53 points is excellent production for a second-liner, and his two-way prowess will be a valuable part of the Habs’ gameplan.
There does remain the possibility for Kotkaniemi to begin the year on the third line, but with Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki knocking at the door to make the NHL, moving Jesperi up line lineup makes more sense for now. If neither prospect makes the team from training camp, playing Kotkaniemi on the third line may be the preferred option with the remaining centres on the Habs’ roster being better suited for a fourth line role. Nick Cousins is the best of the bunch, but Nate Thompson and Philip Varone will also be available options.
Finding a suitable solution to who joins Max Domi on the first line is a big roster experiment for this season. As shown here, it may not be easy to find the right types of players to bring out the best in everyone. Artturi Lehkonen has not produced as well as the team has hoped in the NHL thus far, but he did put up a career high in points last season (with 31) mostly playing on Domi or Kotkaniemi’s lines. He may be the option again for an open winger spot on the first line, as there are few other options for those spots.
Because of how reliable the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line is and the matchups that this line can succeed against, Ryan Poehling or Nick Suzuki are reasonable options to play with Max Domi to start the year. This line would be able to receive slightly easier matchups with less defensive responsibility and be a better way to help a rookie make his start in the NHL. Personally, I see a potential line of Kotkaniemi-Domi-Poehling/Suzuki as the type of offensively gifted first line the Habs have been missing for a long time.
This leaves one key potential offensive threat out of the top-6. Jonathan Drouin tied his career high of 53 points last season, but was never quite able to find chemistry playing with Max Domi. Due to the depth of the position, he finds himself slotting in on the third line to begin the year. Joining him could be Artturi Lehkonen, Paul Byron, or one of the prospects making their debut this season.
Fan favourite Dale Weise has been in tough since leaving the Canadiens organization back in 2015-16, and his return late last year was not remarkable by any means, going pointless in nine games. His past success and playstyle could give him a shot at the NHL roster to start the season, but he is in for some competition from Matthew Peca, Jordan Weal, and Joel Armia.
Team captain Shea Weber’s main goal this season will be to stay healthy. He is a workhorse when he plays and can eat up minutes with the best of them. But, his last two seasons have been limited to 26 and 58 games respectively, leaving a massive hole in Montreal’s roster. When healthy, Weber is able to be a defensive stalwart, handle tough matchups, physically dominate the opponent, and contribute 40-50 points. With a youthful insurgence coming into the Habs’ lineup, his veteran presence and leadership would be extraordinarily helpful for improving their play and development.
Behind Weber is the massively underrated Jeff Petry, who has ended up covering Weber’s spot in the lineup while Weber was hurt. Petry is more than able to handle any tough matchup and although he may not have the physical edge that Weber brings, Petry makes up for it with an exceptional defensive stick, strong hockey IQ and defensive acumen, and he excels as a puck mover, giving the line a reliable first pass option for breakouts. These skills contribute to him being able to record 40+ points per season, as well.
Victor Mete was the most utilized partner for Shea Weber last season, and will be slotted in on his side to begin next year as well. Although the running joke is how Mete has still not scored a goal after 120 games in the NHL, which is unfortunate due to his scouting report praising him as an offensive defenseman, he has clearly earned the trust of the team to play a fairly important role on the defense. His speed and vision bring a unique, modern twist to the defensive position which allow him to jump into the rush more often. Maybe once he finally gets the monkey off his back and scores a goal, the floodgates will open.
Mike Reilly spent a fair amount of time with Petry last season, and he should be the favourite to resume that role in the coming year. Free agent acquisition Ben Chiarot is expected to challenge for that spot alongside Petry.
Noah Juulsen missed most of last season to injury, but the 21 games he did play in were enough to show he is NHL-ready. He should find himself playing alongside a more steady, veteran defenseman to allow him to develop into the role. This is where Mike Reilly or Ben Chiarot will be looked to, as they fit that descriptor quite nicely. However, Juulsen has recently been referred to a specialist to help diagnose and treat headaches that appear to be related to his injury last season. If he is not yet able to play, Christian Folin is a top candidate to replace him in the meantime.
Carey Price. Need I say more? He is the cornerstone of this franchise and can be the best goalie in the world. Some of the more recent seasons have been either less than stellar or plagued by health issues, but the 2018-19 season showed the Price we got used to through the early part of the decade and into his Hart Trophy campaign. Although it is in the team’s best interests to not overplay Carey Price, they also will want him to play as many games as possible as that is how they will maximize their playoff chances. Keith Kinkaid signed on this offseason and is the likely candidate for backing Price up, and he has shown he can perform in that role. His numbers last season in 41 appearances with New Jersey were not great, but then again the team he was on wasn’t either.
Montreal Canadiens 2019-20 Prediction
4th – 6th Atlantic Division
Unless something drastic happens, it is not realistic for the Canadiens to beat the Bruins, Maple Leafs, or Lightning in the standings this season. They don’t quite have the top end talent in place or the depth that the other teams have. But, they should be a solid competitor within the division, provided the roster stays healthy and Carey Price has a good year, and finish in a similar spot as they did last season in firm competition for a wild card playoff berth. The potential for other rebuilding teams in the Atlantic to have a breakout season leaves the possibility for a step back in the standings, however. Although the closest teams were 10 and 20 points behind Montreal last season, it is not unheard of for a breakout year to come with a 20 point jump in the standings.